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Elections officials blast vote-hacking research

The fight over electronic balloting's security also has activists clamoring to ban the new technology.


By Kevin Yamamura - Bee Capitol Bureau

July 31, 2007



Dozens of California local elections officials on Monday defended electronic voting and criticized as unrealistic new University of California research showing that three computer-based systems have serious security flaws.


The latest feud over California's electronic voting future comes as Secretary of State Debra Bowen considers new election security steps that could go as far as decertifying computer-based systems such as touch-screen machines.


A UC Davis computer scientist testified at a hearing hosted by Bowen that three electronic voting systems used by California counties have serious security flaws, based on a series of state-funded hacking tests. That prompted activists to demand a ban on the voting technology in next year's statewide elections.


But voting machine officials challenged the findings as inconclusive because they said UC researchers had unusually exclusive access to voting machine codes. County registrars, who run elections, questioned the UC experiments because they were conducted in computer laboratories rather than under Election Day conditions in which local officials impose security measures.


Bowen, a former Democratic state legislator, plans to decide by Friday whether to employ new security measures. She could even opt to decertify certain electronic machines if she determines they are not secure, a move that could force elections officials in other states to question their own use of voting technology.


"We want to be able to have secure, accurate, reliable and accessible elections," Bowen said at Monday's hearing. "We want to be able to have confidence in the results of the electoral process."


Monday's hearing was intended to assess a recent $1.8 million research project led by Matt Bishop, a UC Davis computer science professor whose team focused on locating security flaws at the request of Bowen's office.


In findings released last week, UC researchers explained how they were able to change votes using a laptop computer and physically break into an electronic ballot box using small tools. They found ways to "alter vote totals, violate the privacy of individual voters, make systems unavailable and delete audit trails."


In the case of one machine made by Sequoia Voting Systems, Bishop said, "We were able to breach the physical security. We were able to bypass the seals and do nasty things."


He said his team was able to break into a server made by Diebold Election Systems using "widely available software." And he said researchers were able to listen at a distance to votes being cast on a Hart Intercivic machine that provides audio playback for blind users. A fourth company, Election Systems & Software, did not provide information to the state in time for its system to undergo review.


Researchers conducted their tests over five weeks this summer.


"If we had more time, if the information were more complete, we may have been able to find more," Bishop said. "In fact, all team members felt that they would have found more."


Voting technology manufacturers portrayed the study as unfair and unreasonable because they said it was conducted without Election Day security measures. They specifically took issue with the fact that the state gave Bishop's team access cards with secret codes that are typically kept secure by elections officials.


"This was not a security-risk evaluation but an unrealistic worst-case scenario evaluation limited to malicious tests, studies and analysis performed in a laboratory environment by computer security experts with unfettered access to the machines and software over several weeks," said Steven Bennett, California sales executive for Sequoia. "This is not a real-world scenario."


But electronic voting skeptics seized upon the findings to argue that California should stop using election technology such as touch-screen machines.


Eve Roberson, a Santa Rosa activist, said the UC research provides scientific evidence that electronic voting machines are defective. She said she prefers a return to traditional paper balloting.


"Our democracy depends upon open and fair elections," Roberson said. "Paper ballots are the only way to guarantee that. We've learned that the hard way. So I urge the secretary of state to ban these corrupted, computerized voting machines in any election to be held in the state of California."


In the wake of voting improprieties during the 2000 presidential election, electronic machines grew popular as a way for counties to comply with federal laws requiring both the modernization and accessibility of voting booths.


California registrars have purchased thousands of electronic voting machines for their counties and stand to lose time and money if Bowen forces them to shelve those units next year.


Elections officials attended Monday's hearing to oppose any decertification of electronic voting machines. They criticized the testing process for excluding their participation and said that electronic voting machines have been used securely in previous elections.


"I'm sorry that I have found the 'Top-to-Bottom Review' to be more about headlines than about definitive science or the pursuit of legitimate public policies," said Stephen Weir, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.


Locally, Sacramento, Yolo, El Dorado and Placer counties last year used optical-scan units for voters without disabilities and electronic voting machines for those requiring accessibility, according to the secretary of state.


The optical-scan system, which generally has avoided the scrutiny that electronic touch-screens face, require voters to fill in circles on paper to select their choices before feeding their ballots into a scanner. But counties elsewhere, including San Joaquin, use electronic touch-screen machines for all voters in their polling places.


Groups representing voters with disabilities have defended electronic touch-screen machines because they can provide independence in the voting booth through technologies such as audio playback of selections and a sip-and-puff tube.


"The right for a private, independent and verifiable method of voting must not be sacrificed in the attempt to resolve the outstanding issues," said Dan Kysor of the California Council of the Blind.


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